India and US improve relations from the bottom up

With clicks of a mouse, he was virtually examining the aircraft’s electrical systems. Airbus was a big client, but, these being boom times, others at the same firm were working for Boeing in another password-protected room.

The man appeared closer in age to his first shave than to fatherhood. My memory has him slouching in the chair. I succumbed to the temptation of a current-events joke: The A380 was in the news those days for falling behind on the production schedule. Smiling, I asked the man whether he was to blame for the delay.

“Actually, sir,” he replied, “if they had outsourced the whole plane to us, it would have been finished early.”

There was something distinctly unIndian about a response like this. An unmistakable whiff of America had gotten into him. The young man’s parents probably wouldn’t have spoken in that way; they might have found such talk disrespectful and tempting of fate. But what was Indian and unIndian was changing, and such verve, confidence, self-belief were contagious among the globalised, upwardly mobile young.

The man came to my mind as the United States and India, on the occasion of President Barack Obama’s visit to the subcontinent, breathed new warmth into a relationship that has heated up considerably since the Cold War, then was seen in some quarters as cooling again under the Obama administration.

During the visit, Obama repeatedly described the Indian-American bond as “the defining partnership of the 21st century.” But the process by which nations come together, get to know each other is more complex and mysterious and subtle than meets the eye.

The case of India and the US reveals what is true of many other cases as well: Beneath the summitry and state dinners and trade deals, there is a gradual human weaving through which two countries sensitise themselves to each other, inspire and learn from each other, laugh at and argue with each other, mimic each other’s fashions and management philosophies, discover each other’s pressure points.

It happened in the book­stores. In India, where the self had for many millions traditionally been something to sublimate to the family and clan, the stores began to fill with take-charge-of-your-life American selfhelp titles like ‘The Seven Habits of Highly effective People’.

In the US, meanwhile, books on meditation, yoga and ayurvedic medicine proliferated; as one country learned from the other how to light dynamism’s fire, another learned how to slow it down and live with balance. And writers like Jhumpa Lahiri explained India to Americans and America to Indians, and showed, in her little family microcosms, what life might look like were the two worlds to blend.

Indo-US blend

It happened in the arts and culture. A new crop of Bollywood song makers merged American hip-hop beats into their tracks and sometimes even rap interludes. Indian advertisements began to speak in the American language of selfhood, freedom and choice — “The internet is under new management. Yours,” declared an ad for Yahoo. Film makers began to make popular off-Bollywood films more likely to appeal to westerners: darker, grittier, shorter song-and-dance-free titles like ‘Life in a Metro’ and ‘Love Sex aur Dhokha.’

America reciprocated with an Academy Award for ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ with the casting of Aishwarya Rai in ‘Bride and Prej­u­dice,’ with Indian characters in mainstream television shows like ‘Out­sourced’ and movies like ‘Office Space.’
In America in these last few years, voters have grown more comfortable with South Asian faces in their governors’ mansions and legislatures. It happened in the realm of style. In India, the jeans slowly grew skinnier and acquired deliberate, paid-for wear and tear, while slipping from the waist down to the hip. Slinky tank tops multiplied on the streets of Mumbai and Delhi, sold by men who would faint if they saw their wives wearing one. And US stores seem simultaneously to have concluded that their jewellery could use a little masala, sparing no opportunity to Indianise necklaces and earrings.

So much of the bottom-up bilateral warming took place in a handful of spaces: places like the Bagel Shop in the Bandra quarter of Mumbai, where expats and locals mingled; the Grand Hyatt hotel nearby, where conferences were held to give Indian and American journalists and power brokers unprecedented access to each other; Rasika, an Indian restaurant in Washington, where Indians and Washing­ton lobbyist types dined side by side; the business-class cabins of Continental’s and Delta’s direct US-India flights, aboard which it became increasingly common for regular pliers of that route to run into one another.

When a summit meeting occurs, cameras click and analyses are penned and prognostications are offered. What is sometimes lost in the lights is the quiet daily summitry of millions of ordinary people.

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